The Texas Board of Education, the nation’s second largest purchaser of public school textbooks, is revising its K-12 social studies curriculum and deciding how to characterize religion’s influence on American history. Three consultants have recommended emphasizing the roles of the Bible, Christianity and civic virtue of religion. As America’s children go back to school, how would you advise the Texas board? How should religion be taught in public schools?
I grew up as a public school kid in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, probably the zenith of what we now look back on as “the secular age.” I don’t ever remember religion or God being mentioned in my classrooms more than in passing — and then, quickly. Evolution was taught freely without caveat or qualification, and if anything, American Secular Scientific Progress was the unspoken religion into which we were being catechized.
Looking back, it was a kind of awkward dance, since religious issues were in fact seething under the surface in history, science, literature, and what we called “social studies.” I can’t remember, for example, how we skimmed over the Creator in the Declaration of Independence. Did we just hear, “All men are endowed … hmmm, hmmm, hmmm … with certain inalienable rights”? I do remember that when we learned about the Pilgrims’ search for religious freedom, freedom was the focus of our curiosity, not the details of the religion they sought to practice or the religions they sought to escape. And of course, there was that benign Deity in the background when we studied Thanksgiving or when we said the pledge of allegiance, but again, the details about that deity never seemed to elicit a question. So, religion seemed to be in the same general category as the use of leeches in medicine: something our ancestors used to do that educated people today find a little bit strange and embarrassing, so please, let’s change the subject.
In the decades since, many have decried this kind of religious don’t-ask/don’t-tell policy, and I think they have a point, although I don’t think I’d be happy with the solution many of them would pose: trumping up “creationism” as something more impressive than it is, for example, or favoring a certain kind of Judeo-Christianity that promotes civic values of a conservative sort, as if progressive values were not equally Judeo-Christian, or as if Muslims don’t come from the same Abrahamic tradition as Jews and Christians.
No doubt, if religion becomes a less-taboo subject in public schools, some will abuse the change as an opportunity for proselytism, and no doubt, others will complain about it.
If I could imagine a good and honest way for the subject to be handled, here would be my guidelines:
1. Teachers and students would be free to be overt about their own religious convictions (or lack thereof) if they wish, with the proviso that they show the same respect to those who hold other beliefs as they would wish to be shown. (This, I think, is a true Judeo-Christian value, right?) Public school classrooms should not be used as platforms for or against any religion.
2. Where religion plays a role — as it certainly did in the wording of Declaration of Independence, or the 30 Years War, or first in the defense and then the abolition of slavery or first in the suppression and then in the inclusion of women as voters — it should be taught and discussed openly.
3. The negative and ugly dimensions should be discussed as openly and freely as the positive or beautiful dimensions. For example, it’s unfair to talk about William Wilberforce and his Christian activism against slavery without also talking about the far greater numbers of Christians who, for decades, opposed Wilberforce using Bible verses to defend slavery. Similarly, the unpleasant behavior motivated by religion in history should be studied — along with the reformist movements within each religion that sought to change that unpleasant behavior.
4. In a globalized world, kids should learn the basics about all major religions and have a chance to sample sacred texts as part of their studies of history and literature.
5. On controversial issues, a respectful “some people believe … other people believe” approach should be taken. Telling the truth about people’s beliefs – for example, that some people believe the universe is 6,000 years old because that’s what they believe the Bible teaches and they accept the Bible as the highest authority in matters of science as well as salvation – isn’t saying those beliefs are the truth. Similarly, saying that “the scientific community believes the universe is 15 billion years old” leaves room for people to say, “OK. I have to learn this for a test in science class, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.” This will require that everyone is willing to share a value for mutual respect – a more robust value than mere tolerance, I think.
Will this solve all the problems? No. It will create a lot of problems. But that’s the challenge of living in a world of people with differences, and that’s the challenge of loving (or respecting) our neighbors … which, as a committed Christian, is one of the challenges I gladly accept in life, and I think just about everybody else does too, whatever their religion or lack thereof.